What Is Your “Transformational Question”?

Questions are powerful. Getting to the right answer begins with asking the right question. A particularly probing question can press us toward new perspectives, new insights, new methods. A very few questions–just the right questions–can stimulate wide-scale transformation

The Power of a Transformational Question

Robert Quinn relates the experience of consultant Kurt Wright who was working for a huge software project that involved a $100 million dollar contract. 400 hundred engineers were 38 months into a 60-month schedule. The project was slipping behind every month and was now 18 months behind. Worse still, if the project was not on schedule within 10 months, the contract required the company to pay a $30 million penalty. Disaster was 10 months away.

What would you do? Crack the whip and urge people on? Fire the managers responsible for the slippage and hire new ones? Give up?

After many conversations with people involved in the project Wright concluded that he had to change the fundamental “scripts” that were controlling the workers’ assumptions and behaviors. To galvanize everyone’s efforts and establish a new positive vision he concluded that it was necessary to change the underlying question. In short, those 400 engineers and managers needed a new and transformational question.

What would it take to finish one week early?

The question had to be creative, frame-breaking, and visionary. It had to capture imagination and motivate wholehearted commitment. Through a series of two-day retreats, Wright finally hit on the critical transformational question: “What would it take to finish this project one week early?”

On the surface, Quinn says, the question was ridiculous. Everyone was already trying to finish the project “on time” in a 5 year contract “one week early” is hardly different from on time. Besides that, going from 18 months behind to one week early seemed an impossible goal. And yet the question was powerful. It rewrote the underlying script by injecting a new frame for conversation. A few people began to take the foolish question seriously and then more joined in.

Why was Wright’s question so powerful? Because it stimulated a process of “rewriting the script” that explained the team’s situation and governed their actions. Quinn summarizes it this way:

“Although his question seemed foolish, it tapped into the latent strengths of the organization. Instead of dwelling on everything that was going wrong and asking how it could be fixed, it changed a problem into a quest.”

Eventually the project finished on time and $15 million under budget. The $30 million penalty was avoided. For this reason Wright says, the question ended being worth $45 million. This is the power of a transformational question at work to focus attention in a new direction, refresh expectations, and establish a new goal orientation.

What Is Your Transformational Question?

To ask such a question there is no need to assume that conditions are bad or that things are not working. Even a good organization can become better. However, it is true that we are currently moving through a time of deep change.

Change involves asking new questions and looking for new answers.

So here’s my question for you. Can you think of a question? A single, visionary, transformational question? Suppose you could only ask one question. Not three. Not two. Just one.

What one question would you propose that would have the power to change your course indelibly toward a more energized and fruitful future?

The story of Kurt Wright is taken from Robert Quinn, Building the Bridge As You Walk On It (San Francisco: Wiley, 2004), 122-124.

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